Eeny, meeny, miny, moe...
Today, the science board of STFC are holding a town meeting in London to discuss the outcomes of the Programmatic Review (pdf, doc). This review looked at all the projects which are funded through STFC and prioritised them based on the recommendations of the Science Board. This afternoon, members of the Science Board will answer questions from members of the community of researchers which work on these projects. The statement from STFC says that no funding decisions have been made yet, but there will now be a period of consultation (until 21st March 2008) with the community before decisions are approved.
There are actually two science committies: PPAN which covers particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics, and PALS which deals with physical and life sciences, so this covers a wide range of scientific projects and concerns a large number of researchers across the country. For astronomy, PPAN has looked at a lot of projects and facilities and ranked them into a series of groups:
- high priority - JCMT, SCUBA-2, Swift, Venus Express
- medium-high priority - Clover, ExoMars, Herschel, LISA, Planck, Liverpool Telescope, SKA R&D
- medium-low priority - ALMA regional centre, ING, SOHO, XMM Newton
- lower priority - Astrogrid, Bepi-Colombo, Gemini, ground-based solar terrestrial physics, Integral, MERLIN/e-MERLIN/JIVE, UKIRT
The examples above are from the list in the report, but there are many more mentioned there which I haven't included here. Discussing which projects are likely to be funded, the report says:
"As an approximate guideline, the funding that we anticipate being available for programmes in the PPAN area could cover the High, Medium-High, and a significant part of the Medium-Lower categories."
This, on the face of it, looks bad for MERLIN. The report goes on to say, however, that decisions on the investment programme will consider results of consultation and "the strategic importance of projects in the international context and as part of a pathway to future development". Specifically, they talk about five projects in this context and have this to say regarding MERLIN:
"The current planning assumption is that support be withdrawn from 1 April 2009. However, e-Merlin has been delayed substantially from the original start-date of 2006 that was assumed when PPARC made a commitment to support its operations, and early 2009 is now about the time when e-Merlin will be starting surveys. The cost of construction of e-Merlin is being borne by NWDA. STFC plans to discuss the situation with NWDA and the University of Manchester, mindful of the potential strategic link with SKA."
Another project which gets a specific mention, not unsuprisingly given the events of the last few months, is Gemini:
"The UK remains a partner in Gemini until at least 2012, but the intention is to sell 50% of our time on the two telescopes from 2009. Options remain to contribute to the Aspen instrumentation programme. There is a need for a strategic review of future provision for ground-based astronomy beyond 2012, balancing the access to ESO (which in the future will include GTC in the northern hemisphere), Gemini, Subaru, JCMT and other ground-based astronomy facilities within the context of a capped overall budget."
So, basically, we have to wait and see what happens. As many people have been commenting already, the release of this document and the meeting this afternoon are going to lead to something of an academic bunfight. Many people affected are passionate about their subject and truely believe that their project is worth funding. All these projects are doing good science, there just isn't enough funding to go around and something has to give. It's not going to be pretty.